Chapter 14: The Road Less Traveled
A second night spent in the warm comfort of The Silver Bear did wonders for my spirits and my travel weary body. I hadn’t realized just how poorly I’d slept during our overland trek from the coast to Elk Haven. Hopefully I would soon adjust to the wilds and to sleeping under the stars, and I would rest as well as I did in my own bed. Argo and Uriel benefited from the extended stay as well, as both were exhibiting an improved moods on the morning of our departure. Before saddling up and leaving the stable, I took some time to brush Argo’s coat until it glowed a rich warm brown in the lamp light. Uriel made use of the extra time to hunt and he now slept, fat and contented, in his travel basket.
The western road out of Elk Haven lay buried under a fresh blanket of snow thanks to a passing storm in the night. The only defining features that indicated a road existed here was the slight dips in the mantel of snow the indicated ditches off either side of the flat even roadbed and of course the upright marker stones set at regular intervals of one hundred measures. Given the current conditions, I was happy that I took Uriel’s advice to overnight at the inn; I would have plenty enough rough nights of cold and snow ahead of me. I was also glad for my new cold weather gear. Wrapped in my new coat, hat and gloves, the icy wind no longer stole the heat away from my body. I used the leather scraps to windproof the cat dragon’s basket and Uriel now snoozed in his warm wicker cocoon.
As the grayness of pre-dawn gave way to a proper sunrise wagons and carts began venturing onto the snow-covered road. Most were local farmers bringing their smoked meats, cheeses, and other winter wares to market. I did notice one trader’s caravan coming up the road from the direction of Finnrest. Out of concern that I might be noticed and recognized by the caravanners, I pulled the hood of my wool cloak from under my coat and buried my head and face deep in its shadowy folds. To my relief, the troop of traders passed me without giving me a second look.
As midday neared, the cat dragon stirred in his basket. A furry head popped out and the rest of him soon followed. “Hold a moment,” he commanded against my mind. He lifted his nose into the wind and sniffed the cold air. “Yes, I thought I smelled something familiar.”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” I grumped. The western road was so isolated now, that even the trade traffic had stopped.
“Every nowhere is, in fact, a somewhere,” he answered in typical dragon fashion. “Just ahead, do you see that great bolder with the spruce tree just beside it?”
“Yes, it’s rather hard to miss.”
“Cheekiness doesn’t become you, Companion,” Uriel scolded lightly. “You’ll find a gap between the spruce and the bolder,” he continued his instruction, “this is the trailhead that will take us to Summer Grove.”
“What an odd name for a place shrouded in cold and snow,” I commented as I urged Argo forward and through the narrow gap between the tree and the monumental stone.
The trail, as Uriel described it, was little more than a well worn animal track; barely wide enough for a horse and rider to pass and nigh on impossible to discern under the blanket of fresh snow. It wound its way through the underbrush taking us further and further away from the main western road. When I finally reined Argo to a halt where the track crossed a small stream the eerie forest world around me seemed like an alien land.
“Are you sure about this Uriel,” I asked as I stood up in the stirrups to get a better view of the snow veiled woodland. “This place makes the hairs on my neck stand on end.”
“I’m quite sure Companion,” he answered from within his snug basket. “Cross the stream and continue to the top of that distant ridge.”
Through the gaps in the trees, I could just make out the ridge he was referring to. “Going through this underbrush, it’s going to take the rest of the day just to reach the ridge. Is this grove too much further beyond it?”
“That’s hard to say,” he replied, “judging distance from the sky is very different from judging them on the ground.”
“Most encouraging,” I muttered before nudging Argo forward.
The trail never became wider or easier to pass, in fact at times I found myself on foot leading Argo because riding in the thick bramble was impossible. All the while the unnerving sensation of being watched caused me to constantly peer over my shoulder. By twilight however, the top of the distant ridge was ours. Sadly, I didn’t see anything in the vista beyond it that suggested a mysterious hidden grove.
“Did you think it would be easy,” the cat dragon asked as he washed his paw. “This is typically a test you know … a final proving before ascendancy from Journeyman to fully fledged Mage.”
“It’s not the physical nature of the trek that bothers me,” I replied as I unsaddled Argo. “It’s this strange ill ease that I’ve felt all day … I can’t explain it. I’ve hunted the moor around Balthazar’s tower, alone, and never felt like this.”
“The Wind Spires are old and imbued with ancient power.”
“Oh please no,” I begged as I began brushing Argos matted coat, “no spook stories … not here in this wild place. I’ll have a hard enough time sleeping as it is.”
I felt his dragon laughter vibrating against my mind. “Very well, Companion. I do suggest though that you make your fire soon, this is Glacier Bear country after all.”
I finished with Argo and set about gathering wood and building my campfire. Dead wood was in abundant supply and I had a healthy pile of it in no time. For the protection of the forest and to facilitate cooking, I cleared a patch of snow down to natural earth and arranged a ring of cobbles to contain my campfire. With everything ready, I retrieved the flint and steel from my pack.
“Really,” Uriel moaned in my mind, frustration colored his thoughts. “You need practice Companion.”
“But I feel uncomfortable showing off,” I protested. “Even Balthazar doesn’t use magic to light our hearth fire. It just doesn’t feel right.”
“I understand your reluctance,” he soothed, “Humans do not embrace the essence of magic the way Dragons do. But the fact still remains; you need practice to hone your skills.”
With a reluctant sigh, I put away my flint and steel and knelt before the assemblage of wood empty handed. I suppose he had a point.
“Try for more control this time,” Uriel instructed. “After all, you’re trying to ignite a campfire not incinerate The Duke of High Glen’s castle.”
“That would be far more interesting.”
A low growl of rebuff filled my mind and I sighed in response before turning my attention back to the arrangement of wood in the hearth pit. I cleared my mind of sundry thoughts and focused my meditations on The Unity before beginning the process of drawing on my implanted Dragon memory. The raw power of unbridled destruction given living form as heat, flame, and furry filled my core and begged for release. In spite of the potency of the surge, I tried to hold the rawness of the emotions associated with fire breathing in check as I uttered the words for light and fire.
Flames erupted from the mass of kindling and branches in the fire pit, but this time they lacked the explosiveness of my previous attempts. After a brief spurt of moderate intensity that followed their birth, the flames settled into a cheerful crackling blaze.
“Much better,” Uriel praised me from his perch on a nearby log. “With continued practice you’ll be able to light a candle using your magic without melting it to a puddle of wax in the process.”
“If you say so,” I grumped as I set my tea kettle near the fire.
By the time I fed and watered Argo, my kettle was hot enough to make tea. I prepared the welcomed mint infusion and enjoyed it, steaming hot, with a portion of my travel rations. Uriel was nowhere to be seen and I presumed that he must have slipped off into the dark woodland to hunt.
“Time for sleep I suppose,” I sighed aloud, as I got up to make one last check of my camp, “Unity only knows how much further we must travel before we reach Uriel’s hidden grove.”
I checked to make sure that Argo’s talisman was well secured in his mane. “Wouldn’t want you to become a bear’s midnight snack,” I muttered as I gave Argo’s neck a gentle pat.
Satisfied that all was secure, I completed my rounds by adding an extra log to my campfire. The fire did more that just keeping the winter’s cold embrace at bay, it helped to sooth my troubled spirit. An air of gloom hung like a perpetual mist in this forest and it fueled my continuing sense of ill-ease. Not long after venturing off the Western Road and into this Chaos cursed forest, the strangest sensation of being watched came over me. That feeling only intensified as darkness fell. For my own peace of mind, I placed my bow and quiver within easy reach of my bed roll before finally settling into the nest of warm furs.
After what seemed like hours, I finally fell in to a restless sleep. Uriel had not returned yet as I drifted off; his customary place beside my right foot was cold with his absence. My dreams came in disjointed spasms; the disturbing specter of the Duke and my Father in anguish comprising their subject matter. As I rose from the horrid depths of one such nightmare into semi-consciousness an unfamiliar voice tickled my ear and drew me to full wakefulness. As I continued to listen, I lay quietly beneath my furs.
“The horse won’t fetch much in the way of profit, Boss,” a whiny voice insisted. “Should I shoot it? Horse meat isn’t my favorite but …”
“No you idiot,” the gravelly voice of the boss replied sternly. “The beast looks strong enough; we can use it to haul our loot to the rendezvous at Buccaneer Bay … unless of course, you fancy lugging all those packs on that scrawny back of yours.” He laughed then; amused it would seem, by the notion of his cohort laboring under a heavy load.
“No, Boss,” the whiny one answered.
The intruders continued to rummage through my belongings as I remained still under my furs contemplating my next move. My bow was within reach; a single arrow fired from the string while uttering the words for light and storm would bring down a hail of lighting on the marauders. Unfortunately, at this close range, Argo and I would be caught in the maelstrom. Then, of course, there was the words for light and fire paired with the Dragon memory; unchecked, I could likely incinerate nearly an entire village with that working of magic. There was a strong likelihood however, that I would incinerate myself and my horse along with my enemies. Neither of my choices possessed the level of precision needed to extricated myself and Argo from our current situation without killing the both of us in the process.
“Uriel,” I thought loudly into the void of the night, “Uriel, where are you … what should I do?”
Silence was my reply.
“So much for being a Dragon Companion,” I grunted mentally.
Perhaps if I used my bow without the magical boon, I considered as my hand slowly inched towards the weapon. If I could get off just one good shot, I could take out one of the marauders and perhaps escape the other one in the ensuing confusion. My hand crept over the soft fur pallet that I lay on and out into the cold night beyond my blankets. I soon found the familiar smooth wood of my bow and a smile curled my lips as my palm wrapped around the bow’s riser. As I griped the weapon, I also managed to slip two fingertips through one of the brass rings that adorned my quiver before beginning the painfully slow retreat back under the covers with my prize.
My triumph quickly turned to tragedy as a booted foot jammed down like an avalanche on my wrist and forearm. I stifled my cry of pain even as the owner of the boot snatched my fur blankets away.
“Well, well, what have we here,” the gravel voiced boss purred as he hauled me to me feet by the scruff of my tunic.
I can only imagine my expression; standing there in nothing but my wool tunic and trousers and blinking like a stunned fox routed from its underground den by a pack of hounds. Helplessness began to weave sick tendrils of despair through my thoughts; I was doomed.
“It’s a girl, Boss,” the whiny one observed. I could hear a strange sort of awe in his voice.
“Don’t speak if you’re going to spout nonsense, Toad,” the one who held me grumped. In the dime glow of the dying fire I could make out the look of disgust on the man’s scared and weathered face. “Girls don’t go traipsing about the countryside all alone … or dress in tunic and trousers … or carry weapons. Girls wear frocks and they sit at home spinning and cooking and whatnot.”
“It’s a girl, Boss, I’m sure of it,” Toad whined insistently. “It’s in her face … she reminds me of my sister, she ...”
“Quiet fool,” my captor grunted a he moved closer to the remains of the fire, hauling me along behind. Once we were before the glowing embers, he scrutinized me as if I were a prized cut of meat destined for the Duke’s table. His face twisted this way and that as he examined me; if I weren’t in fear for my life, I would have found his ever changing expression very amusing.
“Do you still have that scrap of paper the Duke’s fancy pants herald gave us,” he asked without looking away.
“In my shoe, Boss,” Toad stammered, “You said I could have it on account of the hole in my shoe and …”
“Just give me the Chaos cursed paper,” the boss interrupted his sniveling lackey.
For the first time, I caught a glimpse of the second bandit as he came to offer the missive to his boss. The man looked to be only a few years my senior; his body tall and thin, like the scare crows found in many a farmer’s field. While the boss dressed well enough in his tunic, worn leather jerkin, wool pants, and heavy overcoat, Toad was outfitted nearly in rags. The only seemingly warm item the man had on was a dark cloak trimmed in tattered scraps of rabbit fur … likely from animals he’d trapped and skinned himself.
My captor snatched the missive from Toad and squinted at the text in the dim glow of the embers. A perverse grin curled his lips as he raised his gaze from the scrap of worn paper to me. “Looks like we found the Duke’s missing citizen,” he insisted as he scrutinized me anew, “I’m sure His Grace will pay quite handsomely for your safe return.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Those were the first words to leave my mouth since I awoke to find the marauders in my camp.
The bandit boss practically shoved the missive into my face. “Kerri … that’s your name, yes? You’re the chaos cursed apprentice mage that the Duke of High Glen is looking for … and there’s a reward.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about my name is …” I paused for a moment as I considered an appropriate pseudonym. My mind quickly rifled through names of childhood acquaintances from my days at the orphanage. “Effie,” I finally blurted, “I’m an adventurer.”
A brief moment of silence filled the camp followed but sudden laughter as Toad and his boss enjoyed a bust of merriment at my expense.
“It’s true,” I insisted over the din their mirth, “but if you’d rather haul me all the way to High Glen and look like fools in front of the Duke … far be it from me to stop you. I can always come back for the treasure later; it’s not going anywhere.”
Their laughter instantly ceased. “What treasure girl?” the boss asked dryly as he finally turned the scruff of my tunic loose, “I’ve been around these parts all my life, if there was a treasure out here, I’d know about it.”
“The treasure hidden in Summer Grove,” I answered. I hated lying, but I need time to figure an escape plan. “My Da’ told me about it … and with his dying breath, he told me where to find it.”
“Summer Grove is a myth,” the boss answered before making the sing to ward off evil, “and your Da’ was a liar.”
I put on my best look of indignation as I pulled the Dragon scale from under my tunic, holding it out in front of me on its leather cord. “My Da’ gave me this, it came from Summer Grove … it came from …”
“A Dragon’s lair,” Toad muttered as he stepped closed to see the scale more closely. “It’s a …”
“I know what it is fool,” the boss grumped. When he tried to snatch it from me I quickly pulled it away, tucking it back under my tunic. “So your Da’ stumbled onto a Dragon. You’ll soon join him in the afterlife if you go snooping around a Dragon’s lair. Now if we tell the Duke where to find this Dragon …” a slow smile curled his lips and the lusty gleam of greed danced in his eyes as his words trailed off.
“If you tell the Duke, you’ll end up parting ways with your head,” I hissed darkly, “meanwhile the Duke will end up with an even fatter coin purse that he started with.”
Silence engulfed my camp as the two ruffians considered my words. Just what I planned to accomplish by luring them to Summer Grove, I couldn’t yet say … assuming of course, that I could manage to find this mythical glade. If nothing else, perhaps it would prove an effective stall tactic until I could manage to escape.
“All right girl,” The boss grumped, “You’re going to lead us to this treasure at Summer Grove, but remember … you’re our prisoner, not our partner. If what we find is worth our while, then maybe we’ll let you go instead of selling you in the slave market at Blackwash Cove.”